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"Unprecedented": A Graduate Fresher's Reflections

Written by Emilė Radytė, posted on Friday, November 13, 2020

Emilė Radytė , D.Phil. candidate in Neuroscience, reflects on starting a graduate degree at Christ Church during the pandemic.

Emilė Radytė, photograph by Alexander CookChoosing to go to graduate school, whether that be for a single year or an extended research programme, a part-time or professional programme, is a significant decision. Graduate students tend to come from a very wide range of geographic, cultural, educational, and experiential backgrounds – and from different stages of their life and career trajectories. This year, however, their – our – decisions were framed by even more considerations than usual. While most students made the decision to apply and pursue their programmes before any prospect of a global pandemic had started looming, final decisions about taking up offers had to be made under pandemic conditions.

The experience of a graduate fresher at Christ Church this year is thus truly unprecedented, as has been repeated in many contexts in 2020 ad nauseam, but it is also filled with the excitement of new academic, social, intellectual, and spiritual engagement that many graduates come yearning for at the start of any academic year.

View along a section of the IsisWho comes to Oxford as a graduate student during a pandemic? Surely, people who were interested in pursuing their respective degrees at a similar time last year for a plethora of different reasons; students not unlike those in years prior. But it is also a select set of those who were able to come to Oxford in the context of an on-going pandemic. Christ Church’s GCR members this year are spread out across the world and the ones able to experience an altered ‘freshers’ adventure in the College do not include those who were unable to join, or stay, due to physical or mental health, family, financial, legal, or other constraints. However, all of us who are members of the GCR this year are united by our decision to pursue post-graduate degrees during an on-going global pandemic, in an experimental educational environment and amidst continuously changing life conditions. I must wonder how much this will mark the present set of graduate freshers, but I can only claim expertise about my own experience as a Christ Church graduate fresher this year.

Early morning mist on the riverThe beginning of the term started with people trickling into College accommodation. Some of the first 6-person pub outings were organised impromptu, as students were recovering from challenging travel arrangements and emerging from self-isolation as required by quarantine regulations. An early GCR Zoom quiz, socially distanced College dinners in the Friend Room, and exploring the Cathedral by candlelight (or rather by glowsticks, to be more accurate) allowed us to become better acquainted with both Christ Church and its members at large. As a fresher, I was impressed to see the GCR Committee’s active work during such unusual circumstances: just some of the examples include food & dining officers organising prize drawing competitions and arranging more flexible dining for students’ varied circumstances, social officers putting together socially-distanced treasure hunts and themed give-aways, and GCR welfare officers providing opportunities to find support via counselling or calm moments during weekly Brain Strain teas. Similarly, before the most recent lockdown, graduate students organised football, fives and other games outdoors, as well as bike rides, hikes and runs, while the Christ Church Boat Club went above and beyond helping novices gain experience, from arranging sanitisation protocols, to engaging dedicated coaches and experienced rowers, all while battling the fickle Isis. All of these events, both formal and informal, have helped to nurture a GCR community with a character of its own.

This is an unusual time to live for everyone, not just for graduate students. And if GCR members weren’t here at Christ Church, they would be somewhere else, also living through these unusual times. For all of us, therefore, this should not be remembered only as an “unprecedented” experience, but as our freshers’ experience. Because by making it our own, we will remember that we are all in the same boat.